May 2 2018
Emma Lee considers Kate Foley’s poetic exploration of boundaries and how to cross them
The title poem of Kate Foley’s new collection centres on the view of rivers creating boundaries around fields as the narrator looks down from an aeroplane over the Netherlands. As she returns home, she observes a tree, that was bare branches when she left, has now grown leaf-buds. Many poems in A Gift of Rivers explore this idea of crossing a boundary and the rewards it can bring. This idea is fairly direct in the opening poem, ‘Permission’
not priests, politicians, Public Opinion – not even Mum, though I wished she'd Come Out and admitted she knew. Don't need permission – only, yours, and hardest of all, from a place I never visited before, from me, to love you.
The capitals on “public opinion” and “come out” are deliberate and they emphasise significance. Public opinion is often homophobic and, even for adults, there is still an instinct to seek approval and support from parents. The narrator acknowledges that it’s a high-stake question and the consequences of not being given permission would be devastating.
A sonnet sequence ‘Catechisms’ explores aspects of a convent education. In ‘vii But my Guardian Angel’ exudes
excrescences of Gothic and landing with a whump of powerful thighs on the wedding cake altar. Wings creaked like sea-going yachts. The pink and azure Virgin turned her head, fractionally, widened her eyes. My angel looked at me, grinned, and a sudden wind ruffled my hair, under my pudding hat. All that dead hush, smelling of nuns’ clothes, washed in yellow soap, used incense, pious effort, swept up by feathers, like floor dust through a blue, suddenly opened door.
The poem’s energy suits its theme of rebellion and non-conformity. There are consequences to crossing the boundaries of behavioural norms, but the guardian angel is a reminder these will be short-lived and the narrator can then be herself. The angel is comforting, a cheer-leading mother-figure to someone who feels like an outsider, not just due to religion but also because of adoption and sexual orientation.
In ‘Foreigners’, a flock of parakeets edges out the local sparrows, prompting the poet to ask
How to be human, to put a hand on the scales that balances must and should, to love the foreign, the different, the strange, while keeping a hollow alive in our hearts, for that lost brown ball, all of our sparrows?
‘Jail Break’ considers the disadvantage the narrator inflicts on herself by slowly learning Dutch whilst living in Amsterdam. The poem explores the world of non-verbal communication with a sense that boundaries can be overcome.
‘Sleeping together’ explores a long-standing love drawing on the idea that swans mate for life.
You felt my hand heavy as a small anchor on your thigh and briefly our boat rocked with a small shock outside of language. If growing old is giving up what you know you can say, then not only our days acquire patina. Our nights deepen transparently. Our speech, like a mute swan's, is more the proud or tender flexing of feathers outside the lexicon and learned as water drinks reflection.
There’s a tenderness here that anyone can relate to. It explores the mundanity in love that’s gone beyond the heady days of romance and endured.
The poems in A Gift of Rivers start in the commonplace, but apply a forensic eye to explore an idea with as much curiosity and care as a historian or archaeologist would give to an artefact. This, combined with an understanding of craft and narrative, makes the poems satisfying.
Emma Lee’s most recent collection is “Ghosts in the Desert” (IDP, 2015), she co-edited “Over Land, Over Sea: poems for those seeking refuge,” and blogs at http://emmalee1.wordpress.com.